When the announcement came that the original Fate/Stay Night starring Shirou “People die when they are killed” Emiya was going to be nonchalantly erased from history, exactly zero people complained. FSN 2006 was a guilty pleasure if we’re phrasing things nicely (read: it was pretty horrible in hindsight), but its worst crime was placing limitations on how Fate/Zero could end. As fantastic as Zero turned out to be, it still had to live in the shadow of an anime that could have been so much more.
In the interim between Fate series, things weren’t looking up. If you haven’t watched Fate/Kaleid and you don’t enjoy resorting to alcohol in order to sleep at night, you can skip it. As if to make up for the crimes against our eyes perpetuated by all the Fate series not containing the glory of Iskander, the same people who made Zero one of the more enchanting animes on the market returned to rework FSN to be less, well, utterly dogshit.
Unlimited has a lot to make up for, but it’s also got a lot going for it — a great team, dedicated fanbase, and plenty of money to throw at making it as good as it can be. The story has also been drastically redone to make more sense and have more depth than the original. If the new title hasn’t given it away, Unlimited is the story of Archer in many ways moreso than the tale of Emiya or Saber. Even Shirou isn’t completely worthless. However, we run into a big issue from the very first episode, and it’s an issue that’s going to sound very incongruous with the fact that the action is amazing: it’s boring until the end is in sight.
The pilot episode was 47 excruciating minutes of watching Rin wander around saying “hi” to people. It felt like Fate/Stay Night as directed by Tommy Wiseau. I wouldn’t have made it through the pilot if I weren’t already a fan, so it’s disappointing to realize how hard it will be to share this series with someone new. The runway time on the series stayed long and arduous slipping into the next couple episodes. Making the inevitable and impossible comparison to Zero, it’s not much of an understatement to say that Unlimited feels like 13 episodes of a lot of nothing going on. It’s a mixed bag featuring a great deal of, “We’re someplace new now but I’m not sure how we got here.” The problem is exacerbated by the fact that almost all of the action (and a huge chunk of the walk-and-talk) takes place either at sunset or after dark. This sleepy atmosphere is likely a gimmick for the artists to more easily showcase flashy spells rather than having much to do with plot.
Before the lynch mob arrives, it’s worth stating that I think there’s ample reason to put faith in Part 2 of Unlimited making up for lost time. The first half has been everything coming to a head, so hopefully the done-to-death exposition will get out of the way. From where we are, things can start playing out at light speed and correct what’s really the only thing wrong with Unlimited thus far.
It’s even improved on Zero by fixing Zero’s worst sin: the CGI used in Unlimited is so well-blended into the scenes that it’s generally an enhancement and not a distraction (unlike poor Lancelot’s ridiculous berserker jet in Zero). The style of character animation has been preserved from Zero as well. While the characters aren’t overly detailed, their simplicity is elegant enough and has seemingly allowed the studio to focus on getting a lot of frames into the action scenes so everything is very fluid when it matters most.
Above average animation isn’t all Unlimited has retained. Zero’s excellent use of music won a lot of hearts and Unlimited carries that torch. The opening theme is not only compelling, but synchs well to the animation going on during the music rather than just happening along at the same time. The majority of the tunes in the episodes are subtle and subdued orchestral snippets used as tools to enhance what we’re seeing instead of serving as an in-house music video being thrown in our faces. It’s easy to see a slower episode of Unlimited and not even register that music happened (which is how soundtracks are supposed to be!). The end roll is lackluster and features a catchy-yet-uninspiring pop-style song and still images. This can likely be chalked up to the fair assumption that no one is watching at that point, however it serves as a calm reflection piece after what are often ominous episode endings.
The characters have been preserved in spirit, but given a great deal more gusto considering the lengthy time spent on exposition. Emiya is no longer a totally useless whine-hard, Saber isn’t a soulless robot waifu, and Rin is much easier to relate to now. Missing are the histories of Illya and Sakura. Illya serving as a distant, conniving sort of enemy is a fantastic change from the aimless innocent girl routine in the previous FSN. Sakura intimating a troubled home life could still go in any direction, but it’s a drastic improvement from latex suits and terrifyingly disturbing bug rape. Yes, that actually happened. Because Japan.
With Gilgamesh making his first appearance and most of the servants still in play, Part 2 is poised to be a furious torrent of action that could blow Zero out of the water. However, gorgeous background art doesn’t exactly pardon the fifteenth archery club stop-and-chat. As it stands now, Unlimited Part 1 is a fairly weak series that is unlikely to retain viewers foreign to the franchise. While the pace improves as the series goes on, the mundane over-exposition featured throughout the first part of the show is fairly indefensible and harms what would otherwise be a drastic improvement over the original in every way.
Tentative Rating: 7.0
Title: Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works
Original Source: Game/Visual Novel
Source Writer: N/A
Source Publisher: Type-Moon
Director: Kenichi Takeshita
Producer: Animplex, Notes, Type-Moon, and Ufotable
Writer: Takuya Sato
Music: Kenji Kawai
Studio: Studio Deen
Run Start: 10/2014
Review Date: 03/2015
Episodes Reviewed: 00-12